Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
Is it just me, or does it feel a little strange to be celebrating Valentine’s Day by attending an Ash Wednesday worship service? The last time this happened was in 1945. We had a potluck supper here an hour before the service started. And this past weekend, I invited the men – if they didn’t know where to go out to dinner tonight – to bring their sweetheart to Zion’s potluck dinner tonight and then stay for worship. I mean – think about it. Nothing says “I love you,” more than a church potluck – followed by a smudge of ashes on the forehead! Kind of puts you in a romantic mood now, doesn’t it!
Oh – and when I told Nancy of my invitation to the men to bring their sweeties here for Valentine’s Day dinner – she said – without skipping a beat – she said, “And did you tell the men that they need to cook something to bring?”
Hey! Regardless of why you chose to be here tonight – and yeah – I know – Ash Wednesday is not the most romantic way to celebrate Valentine’s Day – but nevertheless – what I want you to see is that tonight is still about a love story. A different kind of love story to be sure – but a love story nonetheless.
I’m here to tell you tonight that of all the love stories that could be told tonight – the most wonderful love of all is the love God has for you and for me. And maybe – just maybe – that’s the reason you’re here tonight. Regardless of how you feel about wearing ashes – you know – even for myself. Some years I wear them – and some years I don’t. The thing is – it’s a choice. But the wonderful thing is that the theme behind the observation of Ash Wednesday is to focus on two things. First – it’s about God’s great love for you and me. And second – it’s an evening that calls us to repentance as it helps us prepare our hearts and minds for the season of Lent.
I like the story of “A Sunday School teacher who once asked a class what was meant by the word ‘repentance.’ A little boy put up his hand and said, ‘It is being sorry for your sins.’ A little girl also raised her hand and said, ‘It is being sorry enough to quit.’”
On of our readings tonight is from the book of Joel. We don’t often hear much from the prophet Joel. His is a book – a short book – but nevertheless, an important book – from the Old Testament. But nowhere in the Bible will you find more powerful words encouraging folks to repent of their sins than right here in the words of this prophet. Listen again!
“Return to me with all your heart. With fasting. With weeping. With mourning. Rend your hearts, and not your clothing.
And nowhere in the Bible will you find more powerful words describing God’s attitude towards those who do repent. Again – Listen!
“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Those sound like love words. Those sound like words of love. I told you God loves you! God is gracious. God is merciful. God is slow to anger – I like that! And listen – God is abounding – abounding! – in what? That’s right. Abounding in steadfast love.
Ash Wednesday. Valentine’s Day. The two kinda go together don’t they? Tonight is all about love – repentance – and forgiveness. In fact – that’s what all of Lent is about – the entire 40 days of Lent! Love. Repentance. And Forgiveness. And the forgiveness that is ours is made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now I’ve got to confess that I do not truly understand everything there is to know about that sacrifice Jesus made on the cross on our behalf. I just know that on that cross – by dying on that cross – Jesus took away the sin of the world. He took away my sin. Your sin. So that we might have forgiveness, and the gift of eternal life with God. Something happened on that cross that changed the world forever.
So tonight I ask you to think about – the sacrifice Jesus made on your behalf when he offered up his life for you. That’s love!
But we also need to think about our own lives. The things we have said – the things we have done – that we should never have said or done. And of course, the things that we have not done that we should have done.
Maybe the following will help. “Bruce Larson notes that when someone enters the army at a place like Fort Dix, New Jersey, there is a great box at the entrance with a big hole in the top. The rule is that you may drop in that box – without consequence – any illegal substance you have with you – drugs, alcohol, knives, guns, whatever. No questions asked. You drop these items in the box and begin a new life in the army. However, if you keep them, and are caught, you are held accountable.”
Folks, you and I – we’ve picked up some garbage along the way – stuff we need to get rid of. That’s where repentance comes in. And that’s what we’ve come here tonight to do.
Remember what that little girl in Sunday School said, “[Repentance] is being sorry enough to quit.” In other words, we’ve got some garbage in our lives that we need to let go of. Not always easy, I know. But we’ve got to make some changes here.
“In his book, Den of Lions, Terry Anderson tells about his captivity by Islamic militants in Beirut. Anderson was held longer than any of his compatriots during that time. This gave Anderson time to reflect on his own spiritual pilgrimage. Like a soldier entering Fort Dix, Anderson had some stuff he needed to get rid of.
“At one point in the book, Anderson, a fallen-away Catholic, confesses his sin to Father Jenco, a fellow prisoner. Anderson confesses that he has fallen away from the church and that he is not a good man. In fact, he concedes that his drinking and pursuing other women were largely to blame for the failure of his marriage.
“This is a very emotional time for Anderson and Jenco. This was Anderson’s first confession in 25 years. Father Jenco laid his hand on Anderson’s head and pronounced absolution: ‘In the name of a gentle, loving God, you are forgiven.’
“Anderson came out of prison a new man. He knew the joy of repentance.”
Terry Anderson had a change of heart. And isn’t that what God is interested in? You bet it is. A change of heart. “Return to me with all your heart,” says the Lord.
With all your heart. That’s repentance. It means to turn your life around. It means walking in a new direction. It means turning away from sin and turning towards God’s will and God’s way. And letting yourself be embraced by God’s love. Listen again!
“Return. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
So whether our repentance is accompanied – as the prophet Joel says – with fasting, or weeping, or mourning – or whether it’s by the wearing of an ashen cross upon our foreheads – doesn’t matter – what’s important is the attitudes of our hearts.
Sorrow over sin. Being sorry enough to quit. Joy over God’s goodness.
The prophet Joel says, “Return to the Lord your God for he is –what? – gracious and merciful – slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We have come here tonight to repent – and to take advantage of God’s love. God’s forgiveness. God’s grace.
Why? So that you and I might be reconciled and restored to God through Jesus Christ.
“A couple of decades ago, an angry man rushed through an art museum in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and when he got to Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, he took out a knife and slashed it repeatedly? And then there was the time, not too long after, that another distraught man went into St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with a hammer, and began to smash away at Michelangelo’s The Pieta. Two cherished works of art severely damaged.
“But what did the officials do? Throw those damaged works of art away, and forget about them? No. Working with the best experts who worked with the utmost care and precision, they made every effort to restore those treasures.”
That is what God is doing with us tonight. We are his treasures. And God wants to restore us into fellowship with himself.
Rend your hearts, and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God for He is gracious and merciful – slow to anger – and abounding in steadfast love. Love. Repentance. And forgiveness.
You know something? Maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday DO go together after all, don’t’cha think? Amen